|'Moneyball' tops 2003 book list|
By Chris Raymond
Special to Page 2
As years go, this one was unforgettable -- at least in the rapidly expanding world of sports book publishing. It opened with a startling confession from the Yankees' David Wells, who admitted to being "half drunk" when he pitched his perfect game (and a less revealing prediction, reduced upon sober reflection by Wells, that somewhere between 10 and 40 percent of major leaguers use steroids.) And December brought a series of rollicking revelations from Lawrence Taylor regarding his outsized appetite for cocaine and hookers.
In between, the famed paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould delivered posthumously a collection of "baseball scribblings" that included his famed studied treatise on the extinction of the .400 hitter (Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville, Norton, $24.95). Michael Lewis, better known for his sharp-eyed business reporting in Liar's Poker and The New New Thing, trained his perceptive peeps on the Oakland A's stat-happy general manager Billy Beane. And John Grisham, the best-selling author in America, dipped his mighty pen into the syrupy waters of high school football to write a nostalgic novella about a former jock who returns home to consider the fate of his terminally-ill coach.
From David Halberstam's The Teammates (Hyperion, $22.95) to Rick Reilly's Who's Your Caddy? (Doubleday, $24.95) to Roger Kahn's October Men (Harcourt, $25), the heavyweights kept right on coming. So fast and furious that Taschen -- the fashionable publisher of flashy art and design books -- felt compelled to join the party with GOAT: A Tribute to Muhammad Ali. (The Greatest of All Time, get it?) To drive the point home, Taschen posted on its Web site this glowing review from Der Spiegel: "This is not a book. This is a monument on paper, the most megalomaniacal book in the history of civilization, the biggest, heaviest, most radiant thing ever printed -- Ali's last victory."
I don't know if I agree with all of that, but the voluminous tome sure is heavy (75 pounds to be precise.) For the princely sum of $3,000 apiece, 8,000 lucky readers will discover in its pages the brilliant-and-sweeping grandeur of Ali reduced to some 3,000 pictures and 600,000 words. Unless, of course, they have $7,500 each to spend on the deluxe edition, which also includes a sculpture created by Jeff Koons (something to do with a porpoise and an inflatable tire.) If I were you, I'd hold off on that one. Based on what I've seen from Koons in the past, I'll bet you can build your own sculpture for $7.50.
Still, with so much muscle-flexing, it would seem that we are flush in the middle of a sports publishing boom. During one weekend this summer -- Sunday, June 29 -- five sports titles had crashed the New York Times non-fiction best-seller list, thanks no doubt to the runaway success of Seabiscuit, still racing along in paperback two years after it hit the shelves. And therefore, with the battle for the year's best sports title as yet undecided, I ventured out to the bookstore with the noble intention of compiling my list of favorites. Truthfully, I also saw it as a golden opportunity to ditch work and spend an afternoon at Coliseum Books, one of my favorite haunts in New York City.
Now I have devoted a considerable amount of my time this past year to exploring the literary canon of the sports world, leaping nimbly from David Maraniss's exquisite biography of Vince Lombardi (if you have not read it, buy it immediately) to the more nitty-gritty offerings in the Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson classic Out of Control, but I did not want to overlook anything worthwhile. So, before abandoning my duties, I consulted with a few ESPN colleagues for reading suggestions.
The morning after my trip to Coliseum, I fortified myself with caffeine and strolled downtown to the Barnes and Noble on 16th Street to finish my research. Good god! I discovered before me at least 40 square feet of books, on everything from martial arts to yachting. No lie. And still I pressed on, skipping only the pilates section (in the interest of saving time). When I discovered a title that had been recommended or one that somehow had slipped beneath my radar, I pulled it from the shelf and retreated to a quiet corner where I might sample a chapter or two in peace. Little by little, I drew up my list -- a selection of books guaranteed to peak your interest when football has faded from your TV screen. Enjoy.
Moneyball by Michael Lewis (Norton, $24.95). This is by far the most influential sports book of the year. From deep inside the Oakland A's organization, Lewis reveals the many radical ways in which sabermetrics -- the study of statistics -- have transformed the game of baseball. At heart, the book is the story of the bold-thinking Beane, a ho-hum player who once appeared to have all the "tools" for huge success. Now charged with stocking Oakland's cash-strapped roster, he is determined to cut down on the risks inherent in signing up talent. The result? A fascinating look into the future of the game.
Fifty Years of Great Writing by the staff of Sports Illustrated (Sports Illustrated Books, $25.95). Take yourself on a joyous road trip through the not-too-distant past with the finest storytellers of the day. George Plimpton on Sidd Finch. Roy Blount Jr. on Yogi Berra. Frank Deford on Bill Russell. The list of gems goes on and on: Dan Jenkins, Mark Kram, William Nack, Jeff MacGregor, Gary Smith … In a year of first-rate story collections, this is a true standout.
Train by Pete Dexter (Doubleday, $24.95). Though Dexter, a former columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News and Esquire, has withheld his singular observations on the sports universe for far too long, it's easy to understand why when you read one of his novels. Now, to our good fortune, he brings both talents together in the telling of this unforgettable story. With luscious prose and uncommon perception, he whips up a Tiger-Woods-like talent and deposits him on the starkly segregated greens of 1950s Los Angeles. Then he pairs the boy with a hard-boiled police detective and sends the two of them out into America to scrounge up matches with high-stakes hustlers. You need not worship golf to appreciate this tale, but if you do, you'll marvel at Dexter's awesome appreciation for the game and its devotees.
True Believers by Joe Queenan (Henry Holt, $23). In the past, I have found that a little Joe Queenan goes a very long way, but I must say that he brings just the right amount of righteous indignation to this examination of the perils of fandom. With piercing evaluations of the boneheads who use sports as a justification for violence and the annoying frontrunners who seem to suddenly appear on every last bandwagon, he lured me to his team. (Not the Phillies, of course.) With the hard-won wisdom of a genuine sports fan raised in the City of Brotherly Love, he sets down the rules of acceptable behavior. And best of all, unlike those deadly-serious "believers" on talk radio, Queenan presents his argument with a hardy helping of humor. That, my friends, is a very fine thing.
Game Time by Roger Angell (Harcourt, $25). Forty-plus years of wonderful observations from one of America's most astute baseball writers … what more can I say? It's worth every penny. If you don't believe me, read Richard Ford's introduction.
Mountains of the Mind by Robert MacFarlane (Pantheon, $24). Long before there were mountain climbers, there were mountains, and MacFarlane escorts us through centuries of thought to explain their irresistible pull on our imagination. Part travelogue, part history lesson, it's one of those books that fundamentally changes the way you look at the world. But don't for a minute think that it's too dry, because MacFarlane adroitly puts us in lockstep with those insane adventurers who risk life and limb to view the Earth from on high. Like every red-blooded American boy, you'll love every gorey detail.
Positively Fifth Street by James McManus (Farrar Straus & Giroux, $26). McManus is the undisputed champion of this year's hot topic. After accepting an advance to cover the grisly murder trial of Ted Binion for Harper's magazine, he put all his cash on the line to participate in the World Series of Poker. To his great credit, he returned not only with a riveting story, but damn near with the grand prize as well. Sex, drugs and high-stakes gambling as only Vegas can deliver -- all wrapped in the artful prose of a real-life poet.
My Turf by William Nack (DaCapo Press, $26). For 30 years, William Nack has trained his delightful eyes and receptive ears on the quiet corners of the sports world, returning each time to his keyboard to hand-deliver some soulful story plucked straight from the life of a boxer or a jockey or a working-class ballplayer. In prose befitting a poet, he gave these men breath and wisdom and respect. Today Nack's work stands tall and true next to that of any living sportswriter, and so we are lucky to have this collection to help us conjure the likes of Sonny Liston, Willie Shoemaker, Rocky Marciano, Bobby Fischer, Keith Hernandez, and, of course, the incomparable Secretariat, whose stunning rise to fame Nack chronicled so brilliantly in his first book, Secretariat.
Where'd You Get Those? by Bobbito Garcia (powerHouse Books, $35). If collecting sneakers were a religion, this would be its Bible. Garcia, who is so knowledgeable about recreational footwear that he almost resembles one of those tweedy appraisers on the Antiques Road Show, has produced the definitive history of New York City's sneaker culture in the glory years between 1960 and 1987. Pick up a copy of the book and, in no time, you will lose yourself in the photos, the lingo, the retro advertisements, the odd creature habits of Garcia's fellow aficionados and the astute testimonials from an incredibly diverse panel of sneaker connoisseurs. I'd call it one of a kind.
Bloody Sundays by Mike Freeman (William Morrow, $24.95). It's not so much the unfettered access that Freeman has to the NFL's locker rooms or the stories he tells once he emerges from inside their closely guarded walls that convinced me to recommend this book, but rather the way in which he cuts through all the nonsense to address the hot-button issues of the day: the inhuman hours required of the game's coaches; the awesome toll the violence takes on a player's body; the intricate financial negotiations that threaten team chemistry; and the criminally antiquated manner in which so many of league's players view homosexuality. In many ways, Freeman plumbs the very same themes that made "Playmakers" so appealing to television viewers. But to his credit, he finds a way to anchor them in real life. In the end, you can't help but discover a newfound respect for men like Jon Gruden, Emmitt Smith and Michael Strahan.
Bonus Pick: The Greatest Game Ever Played by Mark Frost (Hyperion, $30). Truth be told, this book missed the cut by two months; it was first published in November 2002. But I would argue that it did not get the credit it deserved until early this year. A novelist, scriptwriter and television producer by day, Frost eased his way into the world of non-fiction with a superb first effort, the story of the legendary 1913 U.S. Open, which pitted six-time British Open champion Harry Vardon against 20-year-old American amateur Francis Ouimet. If you enjoy watching history unfold in the pages of a timeless narrative, this is the book for you. Think Seabiscuit with divots.
Chris Raymond is editor of ESPN Books.